Monday, September 28, 2009

1,308 miles in a Toyota

We're nearing the end of the public input phase of the 2009 Accountability Standards Project. Since the preliminary standards were unveiled in June, we’ve heard from nonprofit leaders, individual donors and grantmakers. The quality, thoughtfulness and diversity of feedback has been incredibly helpful in making sure the final set of Accountability Standards the Board of Directors will vote on at the October meeting are truly the reasonable expectations for accountable nonprofits.

I wanted to briefly look back on these past few months and summarize some of what happened. All told, here are the numbers:
  • 7 town halls and 4 large group meetings across Minnesota and North Dakota
  • More than 350 people attended a town hall and gave us feedback
  • 1,308 miles logged in Rich Cowles' Toyota Corolla traveling to all the town halls.
Add this to the 12 focus groups we did this past spring, the comments on this blog, and individual feedback from people via email or phone calls and you get a healthy sized amount of data to sort through and digest. Of course, this is a fantastic challenge to address. The strong interest and general support for these standards and the work of the Charities Review Council speaks highly to the fact that here in the upper-Midwest we have a vibrant nonprofit and philanthropic sector that understands the importance of accountability and transparency.

Although there are a number of possible changes to the preliminary standards that the Program Committee and then the Board of Directors will have to look at, I wanted to highlight a few of the stronger bits of feedback that we heard. Top on this list, surprisingly to me, is the potential for adding board term limits to the Board Length of Service standard. As one town hall attendee said:
I frequently experience that nonprofits who are having board problems, regularly have no term limits and board members who have been on the board for 10+ years."
This sentiment was echoed many times over, from Fargo to Mankato to Minneapolis, and is something that will be considered as a possible addition to the Accountability Standards.

The other strong piece of feedback received was around the Financial Health standard and, in particular, the requirement of cumulative growth over the past 3 years in unrestricted net assets. Now obviously, we’re in historic economic times where many nonprofits are simply trying to stay afloat, much less grow unrestricted assets. But we also heard a number of people tell us that because of the recession, nonprofits are spending down unrestricted reserves because this is the proverbial rainy day everyone had been saving for. Done in a prudent and strategic way, this makes a lot of sense, but means that the nonprofit likely would not meet this standard. We received a lot of good suggestions on how to find a compromise on this one and will be considering them all.

To see further feedback on these issues, and many more, please check out the summaries of the town hall forums that are posted on our website. Also, please keep an eye out for the final revised Accountability Standards later this fall. In an effort to make sure nonprofits and donors have time to adjust to these new standards, they won’t be implemented until 2010, but we encourage everyone to keep letting us know what they think and asking us questions.

Again, thank you to everyone who weighed in during these past few months. We look forward to staying connected with you and working together on this important task of improving the climate for charitable giving.

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